All these things happened in the space of a week or so:
1. My friend Pat reported that the POD paperback of the book he’d co-authored with my friend Dick had gone on sale quietly at Amazon, with a score of copies sold in the first several days. (The eBook has already been selling for a month or so.)
The book is Bitter Medicine: What I’ve Learned and Teach about Malpractice Lawsuits (And How to Avoid Them), and I’ve been peripherally involved with it since Dick showed me some chapters he’d written several years ago. Dick is Richard Kessler, a retired surgeon and professor of medicine, with extensive service as an expert witness in malpractice lawsuits. Pat is Patrick Trese, also retired after a distinguished career as an Emmy-winning writer and producer at NBC News; in the course of it he’d also written and published a couple of books. I’ve known them both for thirty years or so, and they’ve known each other for about as long, and the partnership turned out to be a good fit. They put in a lot of hours over a couple of years, and wound up with a solid professional manuscript that told important stories in an accessible manner.
But nobody was interested. A couple of agents agreed to look at the manuscript, kept it forever, and then returned it. A publisher, in an uncharacteristic moment of candor, said essentially that every retired doctor wants to write a book, and many of them do, and nobody cares.
And then Pat had a revelation. Neither of the book’s authors was in it for wealth or glory. Dick had had a very important and useful tale to tell, and Pat had found a way to tell it clearly and forcefully, and what they both wanted was for it to be read. And Pat knew a couple of people who’d embraced the revolution of eBooks and self-publishing, and figured why not?
Pat’s work on Bitter Medicine is done, but he’s keeping busy. His first book, Penguins Have Square Eyes, grew out of his experiences as a TV reporter in Antarctica; it came out in 1962, and now fifty years later he’s tweaking it for self-publication. And he’s hard at work on the revision of a big thriller he’s had in the works for as long as I’ve known him. Some agents have seen versions of it over the years, and encouraged him, but this this time he plans to publish it himself.
2. My agent told me about a new client he’d just signed, a romance writer. She’d published several books with a commercial publisher, and then they dropped her. So she started publishing herself in eBooks, and in a little over a year she was making eight or ten times what she’d been earning in the past. She’d tried handling her own foreign rights, but it took too much time and she didn’t really know what she was doing, so she needed someone to represent her overseas, and negotiate other sub rights.
Now that she was doing so well, she said, publishers had come around, telling her how much they could do for her. “I tell them I already know what they can do for me,” she said. “They already did it.”
3. A few years ago I led a seminar at Listowel Writers Week, in Ireland’s County Kerry. There were ten or a dozen participants, but I’ve forgotten everything about all but one of them. She was a young Englishwoman whose stories just sprang off the page at you. And she was a demon for work, too, with a trunk full of unsold novels.
After class I took her aside and told her how much I liked her work, and that she’d probably have a hell of a time getting published. Her stories were a mix of genres, all the products of a wholly original imagination that defied categorization. But if she kept at it, I said, something would resonate with the right person, and it would all Work Out Fine.
We’ve stayed in touch. A few times I’ve suggested she try this editor or that agent, and nothing’s ever quite come of it. She got a gig writing a pair of biblical romance novels, and they’re better than they have any right to be, but her own work hasn’t made anyone stand up and salute.
She emailed me last week, and here’s what I found myself writing in reply:
“Have you thought about self-publishing? It seems to me you’re a great candidate for it, with a stack of unpublished books waiting to be shared with the world. I know that you know how much the publishing world has changed, and that self-publishing does not have the odium that once attached to it. And I know you know, through personal experience, how the gateway to commercial publication keeps narrowing—and what’s on the other side of it isn’t so great, anyway.
“What strikes me as wonderful about self-publishing is that it allows material to find an audience. What struck me about your work way back in Listowel was the originality of your voice and vision; I think I said then that it might be a while before you found an agent and/or an editor who shared it. (It’s taken rather longer than I thought it would!)”
4. The very next day an old friend emailed me; his daughter, who’s gone from being a falling-down drunk to a standing-up comic, wants to turn her own story into a book. She’s a good writer, does a weekly column that has amassed a strong following. He’s written successfully himself for film and TV, published several books early on, and is not unfamiliar with the business. Could I recommend an agent who might look with favor upon his daughter’s work?
My reply: “I can’t think of anyone. My agent wouldn’t be good for it—or interested. I no longer know anybody else well enough to point at them.
“One caveat: if she doesn’t find an agent who’s wildly enthusiastic, and if that enthusiasm is not shared by a publisher, she’d be well advised to consider publishing it herself. It’s fast and effective, and these days it’s often the best route to a decent book deal with a commercial publisher. The column gives her a platform, and she’s energetic and savvy; I would think she could generate strong sales with a self-published eBook, and whether or not some commercial house took it on afterward, she’d still be in good shape.”
5. While all this was going on, well within that seven-day span, I okayed the proofs of the trade paperback editions of three of my Matthew Scudder novels. Monday I gave the printer an initial order for a hundred copies of each title, and Wednesday UPS delivered thirteen cartons of books. We had a couple of busy days here, but by Friday we’d shipped around 250 autographed copies, and the POD books had joined their eBook fellows on the Barnes & Noble website. (We’re waiting on Amazon.)
THERE’S A WORD FOR ALL OF THAT:
When I began writing professionally, not long after the invention of movable type, people who published their own work were self-deluded ninnies, the natural prey of the jackals and bottom-feeders of vanity publishing.
Which is not to say that one didn’t get caught up in do-it-yourself fantasies. When my fellows and I would gather, glass in hand, for an evening of sociable shoptalk, the inanities of agents and editors and publishers were a frequent topic of conversation. Hell, all the bastards did was screw things up. But if we could do it ourselves—
Thinking back, I’m reminded of Henry Clay’s frustration at his nation’s incomprehensible refusal to award him its highest office. There was only one man who could guide his campaign properly, and the fellow was not available. “If there were two Henry Clays,” he groused, “one of them would make the other President of the United States of America.”
Right. And, if only the world were blessed with two Lawrence Blocks, wouldn’t one of them boost the other onto the higher rungs of the bestseller list? It certainly seemed probable, at least as long as one had a glass in one’s hand…
But the day after, along with sermons and soda water, one returned to one’s senses and saw the world in the light of cold reason. Tempting as it was to demonize editors and publishers and agents, it might not be entirely their fault, dear Brutus, that we were underlings. More to the point, they were indispensable, because successful self-publication was a pipe dream.
Except I knew, at least as far back as the mid-1980s, that this was not necessarily so. That’s when John Erickson told me (along with a whole roomful of people) about Hank the Cowdog.
I was one of the speakers at a writers conference in the Texas panhandle, and John Erickson’s talk is all I remember of the couple of days I spent there. (I remembered his first name, and I remembered Hank’s first name. Google got me all the way here.)
And I never forgot the story he told. He’d tried hard to break into the New York publishing world, and for ten or fifteen years he wrote books and stories, and he never got anywhere. But he was convinced that he was able to write what the sort of people he knew would like to read, and he wrote a book from the point of view of a canny old cattle dog, found a printer, set up shop in his garage, and offered the book for sale at feed stores. Now at the time nobody had ever bought a book at a feed store, but all that meant to him was that he didn’t have to worry about competition.
Just about every feed store and ranch supply outlet took a few copies and put them on the counter. And they paid him on the spot, and there wasn’t any nonsense about returns. And folks bought the books, and they liked Hank, and they liked John’s writing, and when Hank’s next adventure hit the feed stores, they bought that one, too. And the one after that.
The books found an audience.
Did this mean that the New York publishers were idiots? No, not at all. Put old Hank on the counter at Madison Avenue Bookshop and he’d curl up and die of neglect. The publishers were right to pass on Hank’s adventures, and John was brilliant to refuse to take no for an answer.
It made an impression. And I was to note that books with a pronounced regional appeal—Ghost Stories of the Susquehanna Valley, say, or HIking the Widdeshins Trail—were being successfully published by their authors; local interest kept them selling, and one man or woman with a station wagon could handle sales and distribution.
But if you were writing fiction for a far-flung audience, you wouldn’t get anywhere publishing it yourself. How were you going to get reviewed? How were you going to get the book in stores? How would anyone who might want to read it ever learn of its existence?
THAT WAS THEN…
And then, of course, everything changed. Computers happened, and the internet happened, and eBooks happened. And so on.
Meanwhile, publishing continued to evolve—or devolve, if you prefer. The industry, largely partnerships and sole proprietorships when I started writing, had become increasingly corporate, and the corporations set about swallowing one another. Books had to sell an ever-increasing number of copies in order to show up in black ink on a corporation’s balance sheet.
But bookstores were closing, and sales were down. Authors of mid-list books, many with lengthy backlists and no end of flattering reviews, found themselves cast adrift. Some of them were trying to do something about it.
I thought this was interesting. But I wasn’t having trouble getting published. I’d been doing what I do long enough, and had built enough of a following in the process, so that first-rate publishers were still willing to print and distribute my books, and to pay me decently for the privilege of so doing.
Still, I could see changes. My advances were down. And my books were getting harder to find. The new ones got shelf space, but the mass market backlist titles did not; for years my paperbacks filled two shelf sections at a Barnes & Noble, and then one day I stopped at a B&N and could only find one copy each of four titles. And it’s been like that ever since.
I moved very tentatively into self-publishing. Some publishers who’d reprinted early titles of mine—Hard Case Crime, Subterranean Press—were good enough to furnish word.doc files, and I taught myself how to publish them for Kindle,and had a few others scanned to keep them company. I withdrew them when I made an eBook deal with Open Road for 40+ backlist titles, but soon found myself back at the Kindle Direct Publishing platform, offering uncollected short stories at 99¢.
And so on. I’d been active on Facebook for a while, but I swear it took a long time before I saw it as anything other than a way to stay in touch with high school classmates and former neighbors. But I kept getting friended by people who knew my work, and I accepted anyone who friended me, and before I knew it I had an audience of a couple of thousand people out there. I don’t know that they were hanging on my every word, but neither were they hanging up on me.
…AND THIS IS NOW
Well. It was in June of 2011, ten months ago as I write this, that I got a Twitter account and started a WordPress blog. The following month, while I was thinking about having some Matthew Scudder short stories scanned for Kindle, I got the idea of bringing out a full book of them.
I could have proposed it to my publisher. Mulholland Books had brought out a new Scudder novel, A Drop of the Hard Stuff, in May; they’d done well with it, and I had no reason to doubt that they’d be receptive to a collection of Scudder stories.
But how hot a ticket would such a book be? There would be two new stories in the book, but all the rest had been published over the years. I figured a new collection would get respectful reviews, and sell reasonably well in mystery specialty bookstores, but would it fly out of the chains?
OTOH, here was a book I could publish myself. I’d spend a couple of dollars and do it right, hiring Telemachus Press to get it in shape and get it on the virtual shelves of the appropriate eTailers. Originally I was thinking in eBook terms only, but as it took shape I decided to publish a print-on-demand paperback as well, offering signed copies through my online bookstore and those aforementioned mystery booksellers.
Remember, I got the idea for this last July. The eBook of The Night and the Music went live the last day of September, and two weeks later we were carting paperbacks to the post office. (If I’d taken my notion to my publishers, and if they’d been enthusiastic, it would be coming out sometime this summer or fall.)
The book covered its costs within the first month or so, and continues to sell well. It seems to me that I’ve already netted more from it than the modest advance a publisher might have shelled out, and from this point on I can market the book at least as effectively as a publisher would, can keep the price point where I think it should be, and will receive a significantly higher portion of every sale than would ever appear on a publisher’s royalty statement.
Is The Night and the Music making me rich? No, hardly that. But it’s making me happy.
And, when my agent was able to retrieve the rights to A Stab in the Dark, A Walk Among the Tombstones, and A Long Line of Dead Men, I did not even consider trying to find a publisher for them.
WHO KNOWS WHERE IT GOES?
I don’t know where all of this is going—which gives me something in common with everybody else in the world. The publishing landscape is changing almost daily.
But I know this: my default response, when someone asks how to get an agent, or how to find a publisher, or any writerly version of what-do-I-do-now, is to suggest publishing it oneself. That’s a course I never would have recommended to anyone, except perhaps the occasional dotard who’d penned a memoir he hoped his grandchildren would read. And now I’m urging it upon everyone—writers whose publishers have dropped them, writers who never had publishers in the first place, writers whose early books have gone out of print.
Will everyone have a good experience with self-publishing? No, of course not, nor will every book show a profit. But it has never been so easy for readers and writers to find one another, and for any book to find its proper audience.
It’s pretty exciting. I’m no authority, and people like Joe Konrath and Lee Goldberg and Dean Wesley Smith know much more about the subject than I, and share what they know more effectively. Even so, I expect I’ll have more to say on the subject over the months.
AND WHILE I’VE GOT YOUR ATTENTION…
Two weeks ago I posted about having just listed the manuscript of a Bernie Rhodenbarr novel on eBay. After spirited bidding, it sold for $1125. I found that encouraging enough to round up some other manuscripts, along with some scarce and collectible books more suited to eBay than my online bookstore. I’ll need to find time to get them listed, but when I do I’ll let y’all know. (If you click the button to Follow my blog, you’ll be sure to get the memo.)
This ties in with the rest of this post, actually, in that eBay does for buyers and sellers what self-publishing does for readers and writers. We can all find each other—quickly, easily, and efficiently.
And I’d be breaking a cardinal rule of self-publishing if I didn’t leave you with the reminder that signed copies of the three new Scudder books are available from LB’s Bookstore or these six fine booksellers, that The Sins of the Fathers is eVailable for 99¢ (limited time only) for Kindle – Nook – Apple – Kobo – Sony Reader, that all my HarperCollins eBooks have been reduced in price to $3.99, and that the full list of my work at About LB’s Fiction has been updated to contain live links to both Amazon and Barnes & Noble…and I’m adding links to Audible.com, too.
Whew. A couple of years ago, that last paragraph would have sounded to me like something in another language. And, just in time, I’ve figured out what title to hang on this post. (The line’s from Yeats. But you knew that, right?)